Percy Wenrich (January 23, 1880 – March 17, 1952) was a composer of ragtime and popular music. Wenrich was born in Joplin, Missouri, where his father, Daniel Wenrich, was a lead miner. He learned to play piano and organ from his mother Mary, and started to compose songs as a boy.
He left for Chicago in 1901 where he attended classes at the Chicago Musical College. Buck & Carney published his first songs, including one titled “Just Because I’m From Missouri.”
Wenrich moved on to New York City around 1907 to work as a Tin Pan Alley composer, but his music retains a Missouri folk flavor. He soon turned out a succession of hits, including “Rainbow” which sold at least one million copies; “Put On Your Old Gray Bonnet,” “When You Wore A Tulip and I Wore A Big Red Rose,” which sold several million copies, and “Where Do We Go From Here, Boys.” Other hits were “Sweet Cider Time,” Sail Along, Silvery Moon,” “Silver Bell” and “Land of Romance.”
Wenrich was elected to The Lambs in 1918.
With fellow Lamb Raymond W. Peck, he also wrote an operetta, Castles in the Air, in which Vivienne Segal starred, and a musical comedy The Right Girl. He appeared in vaudeville with his wife, singer Dolly Connolly, in a song-and-dance act that toured for more than 20 years. In 1914 when the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers was founded, Wenrich was one of the founders. He retired to Hollywood in 1934, but returned to New York at the end of his life and resided at the Park Sheraton Hotel.
Wenrich died on St. Patrick’s Day 1952 in Manhattan. He was 72. Wenrich’s will said he wanted to return home to Missouri, and he is interred in Fairview Cemetery in Joplin. His generous legacy still benefits The Lambs today, and he is an Immortal Lamb.
From The Lambs Script, July-August 1951 Issue
Percy Wenrich, Alias “The Joplin Kid”
A bunch of boys were whooping it up
In Jake’s Midway Saloon,
With the Joplin Kid at the groan-box
Pounding a ragtime tune–
Percy Wenrich wouldn’t have been pounding out ragtime tunes in Jake’s gin mill at Davenport, if his most recent employer, Doctor Devers, had not closed his medicine show without notice, over at Maquoketa, Iowa.
The Joplin Kid had made it into Davenport, somehow, and Jake had said sure, he could use a piano player in the back room if he could play real good like the customers wanted. Salary, $1 per day, plus any dimes and nickels they might throw into the dish on top of the piano between their five-cent beers and ten-cent whiskeys.
The Kid had pride, and this was a comedown. He, who had commanded as much as $10 for a song! Of course, you couldn’t always get $10 for writing a single song, for a lot of those vaude acts just could not afford it, but it was easy to get $5 for one, and when Percy set the price of his special musical material at $10 for three songs, he did all right, for his songs were good songs.
Yet here he was at Jake’s Place, working for a dollar a day! Still and all–the free lunch was only a few feet away–
Percy had been a student of serious music at the Chicago Music College, under one Doctor Ziegfeld, whose son, Flo, did all right, later on, in our town; but Percy had to quit the college for lack of funds and go back home to Joplin, Missouri, where is father was the postmaster and his Mamma served three big meals a day.
But after getting the wrinkles out, Percy again had a yen for the open road, marry a nice girl and be a solid citizen. Why, if the Republicans under President McKinley stayed in power–who knows–Percy might even grow up to be Postmaster like his Poppa.
So Percy went back to Chicago on a railroad ticket he had finally wheedled out of his brother. Back to the smoke of the Loop and the smell of the Stock Yards; back to Freddy Train’s, the med shows, the rep shows, and cabarets. But, between stints, he could jot down the music that was in his soul.
In and out. Up and down. Hot and cold; yet Percy kept plugging away and then, in 1908, people began to buy a piece he wrote called “Come Be My Rainbow,” and some of the pressure was off. He could order a steak if he felt like it. It was nice to order a supper and not have to sing for it.
“Rainbow” was followed the next season by a folksy little number called “Put On Your Old Gray Bonnet” and the sweet simplicity of that song made everybody think they could sing it. Anyhow, nearly everyone bought it and tried, and Percy Wenrich was on his way. “Silver Bells” followed, then he wrote “Sweet Cider Time” and many others, including his soldier song, “Where Do We Go From Here, Boys?”–Percy’s songs made songwriting history, and right this minute you may pop in to your local cinema and hear “When You Wore A Tulip” in the Clifton Webb picture, Cheaper By The Dozen.
When Percy Wenrich sold a song for $10, ‘way back yonder, had anyone told him that he would, in 1950, sell one song to Warner Brothers for ten thousand dollars, he would have thought such a one had rocks in his head, yet that’s what he was paid, just last year, for “On Moonlight Bay,” and, likely enough all they’ll use is the title after the Hollywood manner. The picture will be released about the time you read this, so we’ll wait and see.
With our late beloved Shepherd, Ray Peck, Percy collaborated on a musical comedy entitled Castles in the Air, and they took it to Chicago for a tryout. The show ran for a year at the Olympic Theatre to capacity business, with a grand cast including Vivienne Segal, Bernard Granville, Hal Murray, Gregory Ratoff, and others, and Percy was filthy wealthy again.
Meanwhile Percy had married a girl of classic beauty and great talent, Dolly Connolly, and with his wife toured the big time for 25 years, writing the songs he loved to write, whenever the mood moved him.
Percy doesn’t get around much now, for he had a stroke about three years ago, and he takes a step with his right foot he isn’t sure the left foot is coming with him; even cussing at it doesn’t seem to do any good.
He’s not bitter, the Joplin Kid. He’s not the type. He’s had a grand life, a full life; he’s made people happy and they’ve been good to him and what else is there?
His eyes still sparkle when he talks to showfolks and his memories keep him young. He is keenly aware of the current Broadway scene and keeps track of his brother Lambs, especially those that remember Dowling’s famous beer emporium, in the Times Square Hotel basement, an actor’s roost where you could hear more sweet adeline quartets to the pint than anywhere else on earth.
We asked Percy why he doesn’t dash off of a few modern songs, just to keep his hand in, and that question made him serious: “Mack, I was born in 1880. I lived through the greatest era of songs and singers we may ever know, and era when a singer’s voice was actually a musical instrument, and one that called out for sweet songs.”
“We had no phonies collecting thousands of dollars a week for having two tones to their voices! A singer didn’t last a week if he couldn’t Sing! Heaven help us, I’m afraid that’s not true now. I know full well that sex is here to stay, as the man says, but I cannot and will not try to write a song for these moaners who mumble off key while rolling their eyes at over-emotional sixteen year old girls in a manner that brings on hysteria to such an extent that they actually tear their clothes!”
“I don’t need the money. I never needed money, even in the lean days, badly enough to cater to such an alleged “musical” outlet. To me that would be as bad as selling dope to those same kids in their own schoolyards, for in both instances hysteria is the target.”
“I guess I was spoiled but some fifty million normal Americans–healthy, clean Americans, who loved my simple songs and paid me a fortune for writing them.”
Trying to grasp what Percy means, it’s simplified if one recalls that rather thin, sad looking French girl, Edith Piaf, who stands quietly in a plain black dress and just sings. With a minimum of physical movement, whatever the song, whatever the language, Piaf sings, and her soft, organ-like tones can bring a lump in your throat and increase your heartbeat. I’m sure that’s what Percy means when he fumbles for words to describe his joy in writing simple songs for singers who sing, and why he refuses to peddle lyrical hashish.
The Joplin Kid has indeed walked with kings without losing the common touch, and in this bebop-reefer-happy-dust era, it’s inspiring to visit a Brother Lamb like Percy Wenrich; there are so very few of them left. We hope Percy will be around a long, long time.